When I was younger and didn’t know anything, my favorite writer was Joseph Conrad and my favorite book was ‘Heart of Darkness’. I looked up to Conrad as a writer because his language was simple, but his imagery and themes were complex. You could always get a good grade on an essay for English class when the topic even tangentially referenced his work, and his books were always mercifully short. Back in school, I thought that to be a good writer, you had to be in some ways inscrutable, like the Delphic Oracle making pronouncements upon the human condition, leaving most of us benighted savages none the wiser. Just try reading Finnegan’s Wake if you don’t see what I mean.
Then I got older, moved to another country, and decided to read whatever I damn well pleased. It wasn’t long before I discovered the works of two authors that would change my life completely.
P.G. Wodehouse was a giant of 20th century English prose, but as far as I can tell, he isn’t taught at either high school (Sixth Form for you Britishers) or university level in either Britain or the US. He wrote mainly comedic novels and short stories, the most famous of which are the Jeeves and Wooster series, about an upper-middle class Londoner of the Edwardian era and his omniscient valet (butler) Jeeves. Wodehouse was a master of comedic simile and metaphor. In his first Jeeves and Wooster book, ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ (1923), he describes a possible fiancée of Bertie Wooster’s in this way:
“Honoria… is one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welter-weight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging on a tin bridge.”
In the same book, he once again describes Honoria:
“I once got engaged to his daughter Honoria, a ghastly dynamic exhibit who read Nietzsche and had a laugh like waves breaking on a stern and rockbound coast.”
That gives you a pretty good idea of what you’re in for. Wodehouse was a master of pace and rhythm, and as any comedian will tell you, telling a good joke is like playing Jazz well: it’s all in the rhythm and the notes you don’t play.
My second paragon of literary buffoonery came from the pen of George MacDonald Fraser, a Scottish former journalist and soldier of the Second World War in the Burma campaign. After his service Fraser came home and wrote for the Glasgow Herald. In his spare time, he took a throwaway character from a Victorian novel for boys, ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ by Thomas Hughes, and created in my opinion the finest comedic character of the 20th century. Sir Harry Paget Flashman is a coward, a lecher, and an all-round horrible human being. He’s basically the Dirk Dastardly of the Victorian Age, except that his countrymen believe him to be one of the greatest soldiers of the age, rivaling Chinese Gordon and the Earl of Cardigan for military accomplishments. Fraser’s Flashman series of novels combine razor-sharp wit with impeccable historical research that will (if you’re anything like me, and you must be if you’re reading this far) leave you on the floor dry heaving with laughter while simultaneously gifting you with an intimate knowledge of the major historical events of the 19th century. Flashman ran away from every major engagement that the British Army faced from the First British-Afghan War of 1830 (which has scary parallels with the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan today, read the first Flashman book for more) to the Boxer Rebellion in BeiJing in 1900 (Flashman and the Dragon). In between, Fraser’s Flashman meets every major historical figure of the era, including (after helping escaped slaves in the Underground Railroad, completely against his will) Abraham Lincoln (Flash for Freedom) and even Our Little Vicky (that’s Queen Victoria to you) in multiple volumes of the series.
I’ve gotten so much from these writers that it’s impossible to fully explain my debt and gratitude to them, but I’ll attempt it anyway. While some may say that Wodehouse and Fraser won’t do anything to enrich your soul (I disagree completely, but that would make this already long post unwieldy), I don’t believe that there is anyone that would differ with me in that their writing makes an already dark world much more bearable. Although I do believe that the world needs writers like Conrad and Joyce who hold a mirror up to some aspects of society and show it in all its horror, I do think that Fraser and Wodehouse perform an even more valuable public service in allowing us to forget those same horrors, at least for a small portion of our day. I’ll take Jeeves pulling Bertie Wooster out of the clutches of matrimony or Flashman running from a fight or an outraged husband over any ‘serious’ writer any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.
For more info on Wodehouse, you couldn’t go wrong with fellow comedy genius Steven Fry’s take at http://www.pgwodehousebooks.com/fry.htm. There’s much less available on the web for Fraser, especially as concerns serious literary criticism, but there are a few fan sites out there, although the Flashman Society seems to have gone out of business since Fraser’s death in 2008 (a dark day indeed). Just go get the first book, and never look back.